Governor Deval Patrick proposed a $32.6 million increase for the state’s beleaguered Department of Children and Families, part of an annual spending blueprint that also seeks modest expansions in transportation and education.
Officials said the 5 percent increase for DCF would help reduce caseloads, which average about 18 per social worker, to about 15, in accordance with a commitment made by the Patrick administration in March 2013.
The money will allow DCF to hire about 150 additional social workers and supervisors, said Susan R. Elsen, an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which keeps a close eye on the agency. She called it a “step in the right direction” but noted that DCF still has less money than it had in 2009.
The $36.4 billion overall budget proposes tax increases on candy and soda that lawmakers have rejected in the past. It reflects Patrick’s acceptance that lawmakers, who snubbed his call for $1.9 billion in new taxes last year in favor of their own $500 million tax hike, have no interest in asking taxpayers for much more in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Patrick called the budget good and sensible, but ruefully acknowledged that his drive for significant tax increases to fund education and transportation programs is over, with less than a year left in office and just over six months remaining before the Legislature concludes major business in July.
“The people of the Commonwealth, whether it’s the next governor or the governor after that, are going to have to come back to this subject one day, if we want to have the kind of Commonwealth that really assures that everyone has a chance to succeed,” Patrick said.
Local officials said they were upset that Patrick included no additional local aid, which helps cities and towns pay for police officers, firefighters, and other municipal services. Since 2008, that critical account has fallen by about $400 million, say outside budget analysts.
Unless lawmakers pump money into the fund, cities and towns could be forced to raise property taxes or cut services, said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents local officials.
“This is actually a very difficult and painful budget for cities and towns,” Beckwith said. “It’s disappointing.”
Raising property taxes would be a bitter coda for the governor, who swept into office in 2006 promising to cut that tax. His promise was felled, in part, by the recession that marked the second half of Patrick’s first term. He has sought to help local officials raise revenues by empowering them to increase local taxes on meals and hotels and by giving them greater power to cut health care costs. But those resources, Beckwith said, have run their course.
“Communities have used those tools already, to absorb all those cuts,” he said.
The budget would increase state spending by 4.9 percent, or about $1.7 billion. Most of that increase, $1.14 billion, comes from anticipated growth in state tax collections.
Patrick’s plan is also propped up by $97 million in taxes. It would expand the nickel deposit on soda to noncarbonated juice drinks and water, make four targeted changes in the business tax code, and apply the sales tax to candy and soda, which are currently exempt.
Another $334 million comes from one-time revenues. Those include $175 million from the Rainy Day Fund, a reserve account intended for fiscal emergencies but frequently used to balance the budget. At the end of the upcoming fiscal year, the fund would be left with $1.2 billion, which is considered a healthy balance.
Another $53.5 million in one-time money would come from the sale of gambling licenses, $32 million from one-time federal funds, and $13 million by tinkering with the payment schedule for the state Medicaid program.
In all, budget analysts said, the proposal’s reliance on one-time revenues has been roughly halved from the current budget.
Reaction from lawmakers was muted, reflecting a stark political reality: Patrick’s budget carries little weight in the House and Senate, which will offer their own competing plans in the coming months.
“We will have our lick at it, as the House and Senate are supposed to do,” said Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. He said lawmakers may increase funding for special education, regional school bus service, and several programs to combat homelessness, which he said Patrick did not provide enough money for.
The governor said he was proud his budget would boost spending on transportation by $141 million, allowing the state to continue chipping away at a long list of road and rail projects. Funding for kindergarten through high school would be increased by $100 million. Spending on higher education would jump by $68 million and on early education by about $15 million, to provide preschool for 1,700 additional children from poor families.
About $17 million in new spending would be funneled into programs for older residents, particularly those designed to keep seniors in their homes. Advocates for seniors, who have long lobbied for funding to eliminate waiting lists for those programs, were thrilled.
“We will not be turning elders away,” said Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of nonprofit agencies that care for patients in their homes. “It’s a smart investment because an elder who stays out of a nursing home today saves money today.”
Noah Berger — president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning budget research group — applauded Patrick’s focus on education and transit, but said the impact of his spending plan will be limited.
“The governor called it a sensible budget, which I think is somewhat accurate,” Berger said. “But without significant new tax revenue, you really can’t make the kind of investments that would strengthen our economy in the long-term, substantially, so we see pretty modest investments in things like education.”